Irish Water report shows the cowardice of our political culture

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Eamon Delaney in the Irish Daily Mail (longer version here)

This week we saw the publication of reports by two different State-created bodies. One was the Fiscal Advisory Council which warned about increases in public sector pay and about the Government running out of money for capital investment and tax cuts.

The other report was from the Expert Commission on Domestic Public Water Services, set up last June by then environment minister Simon Coveney to resolve the controversial issue of Irish water and how it should be supplied, measured and, most crucially, paid for.

But there was a world of a difference in how these bodies are treated. The Fiscal Advisory Council is usually ignored, and its criticisms brushed away by populist Ministers intent on ramping up public spending. At times, it has looked almost irrelevant as it pleaded with the Government to keep within affordable EU spending limits.

By contrast, the Expert group on Public water is eagerly listened to and its findings seized upon as cover for a political culture that wants to avoid unpopular decisions and go for the easy option. This is why it was set up. The Government, desperate to stay in office, with the support of Fianna Fail (which wants to suspend water charges) agreed to refer the whole issue to an expert group and see what happened.

And now the group has come back with an immensely convenient formula to help the political parties. It say the ‘vast majority’ of people should no longer have to pay water charges and there should only be a charge for wasteful usage (which has yet to be defined). It suggests that water should be paid for through general taxation: that big catch-all bucket of Government funding which usually means more charges and stealth taxes for those who are working.

The report says that an allowance for domestic water use should be calculated on the basis of the number of people living in the home, and that a referendum putting Irish Water in public ownership should be considered. But the commission also questions the rollout of water meters, which cost over €500 million to install.

So basically, the report questions whether the meters should have been put in at all, at huge cost, not to mention all the money spent on Garda time, and all the now seemingly pointless protests against such installations. ‘

The report says that while ‘benefits have accrued’ in detecting leaks and monitoring patterns of water usage, a system of measuring water usage by district could suffice from now. Irish Water, it adds, should ‘complete a programme of district metering to identify system-wide leakage and manage the networks, stressing that ‘ district meters and other new technologies have been shown to be helpful in disaggregating consumption data.’

This is shocking, and a huge indictment of the Government for unnecessarily installing individual maters. If this is the case. For it is hard to tell if this report is actually about the efficiency of installing a water system -or about the political expediency of doing so.

And it says so itself, in black and white. Essentially, the Expert Group was asked to choose the best system for paying for water: instead they chose the one they thought would be politically acceptable. And so the report is self fulfilling exercise for a political culture stuck on the hook of water charges. Except that, as we shall see, it may have created more problems, and divisions, than before.

The report states clearly that almost every study agreed that volumetric charging was the best option. But that, because this led to protests in Ireland, the Expert Group is recommending against it !

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The argument they make is that there’s no point advocating a system that wouldn’t be supported. So all the report is doing is reflecting back what the politicians want – and what the protestors demanded. This is experts led by the mob, and on this basis, we wouldn’t introduce any unpopular laws or taxes.

‘The charging framework has not been able to deliver enduring political support nor did it attract a sufficient degree of popular acceptance’ it says. ‘This is clear, for example, from the subsequent modifications to the charging system within a very short period of time. The process culminated in the suspension of water charges (by which time a significant proportion of consumers had already paid some or all of their water bills) and the Expert Commission was established.’

‘These successive modifications, taken together with other factors, have undermined confidence in the system’ it continues ‘and have led to increased doubt and uncertainty around the basis and legitimacy of the charging regime.

But the Report is here confusing ‘legitimacy’ with ‘popularity’. How could water charges be any less legitimate because some people haven’t paid?

The Expert Commission said that ‘due account must also be taken of the background and context to water charging in Ireland, including the issue of acceptability.’

In this context, when considering the options for funding various local services, including water services’, the group quoted the Indecon Report on Local Government Financing (2005) which noted that “making recommendations which are correct in principle but which are not capable of being implemented does a disservice to the need to reform the system of local government funding.“

This is cowardly talk and, with such defeatism, how could a State ever collect for dog licences, car tax or a TV licence?

The Expert Commission concludes with the belief that ‘making recommendations that meet the standard criteria and that may theoretically align with best practice but do not take account of the relevant background and context in Ireland – including the

criterion of acceptability – would not be useful.’

In otherwords, Ireland is a sort of special case where many people don’t believe they should have pay their way and the political culture would be wise to note that. The Governments don’t do unpopular things here, so don’t bother. And so the Expert group colludes in the populism and expediency of our spineless political culture.

And yet the original terms of reference for the Expert Group said nothing about choosing the option that’s most politically acceptable.

The report also claims that charging for water by volume didn’t get sufficient political and public support last time, and that’s why they’re not recommending it now.

But this claim deliberately distorts the fact that much of the public backlash over charges was against Irish Water, as a institution and the clumsy way it was set up, rather than water charges per se. So they’re using a completely false argument to decide against water charges – even though they admit that all the studies say water charges is the best way to meet their objectives!

It is also worth noting that under 2011 figures Irish people used more water than anyone else in Europe; and that across the board we leak more water than the UK. So the answer to both of these would surely be charges.

But the Expert Group which we might have hoped would look at our water supply in the detached cold light of what’s best for the country and the system, instead gave us an evasive study of political expediency. And it is a depressing indictment of how little we have journeyed from the lack of independent rigorous oversight that led to our economic crash? Does it take the EU Troika to come in and tell us how things really are – and what’s best for our water supply?

The abandonment of water charges is surely one of the most shameful of populist stunts, and it is hard to know who is the more culpable – Fianna Fail for following the pied piper of the hard left Paul Murphy (and then Sinn Fein) and shamelessly seeking votes for their abolition promise at the last election. Or Fine Gael who go along with the suspension, just to stay in power.

It is clear that Environment Minister Simon Coveney doesn’t believe in the logic or fairness of it all. For the abandonment, endorsed in this report, comes at a high cost – for those who have already paid and those who are in private water schemes. Incredibly, he has dismissed the prospect of those who have paid getting refunded – to the dismay of FG backbenchers

Of course, if FG had any real principles, they would have walked away from Government – and not formed one, dependent on FF. And FF’s water opportunism is up there with Jack Lynch’s abandonment of rates and car tax in 1977, with ruinous circumstances thereafter.

But what is most the depressing about the abandonment of water charges, and the Expert Commission’s support for this, is that it actually penalises law-abiding, hard-working people and once again, in Ireland, rewards the workshy and lawbreakers and those who believe that angry, often violent protest is a way to tackle polices put in place by elected governments. And this is the explicit message of the far left parties who came to dominate the protests.

Citizens who allowed water meters to be installed – even if they disliked the idea – will be the most penalised. They are by definition the only ones who will ever pay the punitive charges for excess use, because nobody else’s use will be measured. So law-abiding people who let the water installers do their work face being charged for over-use, where others get a let off. So, in many ways, it is a victory for intimidation and law-breaking, while honest citizens get punished.

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And with water being paid for largely out of general taxation, only people who pay tax will actually pay for water. Once again, those who don’t – the unemployed – will contribute nothing, regardless of how wasteful they are. It’s left to the hard working classes to subsidise those in our growing dependancy culture – on top of everything else they get free from the state. And no politician wants to address that – or address the crushing tax and living cost burden on these people.

Anyone living in apartments can use as much water as they like without facing charges – ever. How is that fair? So you’ve done your but, worked hard, bought a family home to raise your kids in – often at crippling expense – and you get shafted.

People on group schemes pay twice – once via their group scheme and then again through general taxation. And already there is great anger in rural Ireland – where the far left have no representation or interest – about all of this.

And of course that’s even before you consider Simon Coveney hanging out to dry all those people who paid up and now won’t get refund, as if anyone believes that the legacy non-payers will ever actually be made to cough up!

The system of government we have has its faults, and we do accept that it has swings and roundabouts: but it does require a basic fairness, a notion that all citizens have to pull their weight, that everyone at least contributes.

That has been abandoned here. And instead, protest and intimidation has won the day: the message is that if enough of you set your face against paying your fair share, if you break the law in a group rather than individually, eventually you’ll win – and in this instance winning means paying for nothing, getting a free ride off the backs of the working people who actually make this country function.

It’s an utterly shameful abdication of responsibility on this issue: it will undermine our water infrastructure, but worse still it undermines the collective basis on which society is meant to work. And worse still when a Government-appointed Expert group goes along with this.